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Fables of a Jewish Aesop: Translated from the Fox Fables of Berechiah Ha-Nakdan

Fables of a Jewish Aesop: Translated from the Fox Fables of Berechiah Ha-Nakdan

by Moses Hadas, Fritz Kredel (Illustrator)

Product Details

Godine, David R. Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
Nonpareil Series
Product dimensions:
8.30(w) x 5.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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    Fables in the Western European Tradition

Although the exact dates of the life of the author of the Fox Fables, Berechiah ben Natronai ha-Nakdan, are much disputed, it can be stated with certainty that the fables were written at the end of the twelfth century or the beginning of the thirteenth and that the author must therefore have been dependent on the collections of fables then available in western Europe. The Greek texts of Aesop were available in Constantinople, but there is no evidence of their being known in the West at that time. There the Aesopic tradition was represented by a number of Latin fable collections. The best-known of these was the so-called Romulus collection, of which several manuscripts are extant. The earliest dates from the tenth century. The number of fables in this collection differs according to the manuscript: The manuscript in Corpus Christi College, Oxford, has forty-five fables; that of Munich, thirty-nine; that of Bern, forty-seven. The total from all sources is eighty. The order of the fables is closely related, although by no means identical, in all the manuscripts.

    The chief source of the Romulus collection was the work of the Roman poet Phaedrus (fl. C.A.D. 14-60). Some thirty-seven of the Romulus fables are derived from his poems, and it is generally believed that most of the others are adapted from fables of his which are no longer extant. It is hardly necessary to add that the Romulus collection does not contain all the fables which appear in the Greek collections attributed to Aesop.The different Romulus manuscripts have various prefaces in which the origin of the selection of fables is "explained." The commonest explanation is that an emperor named Romulus chose them for his son, sometimes called Tiberius. It is impossible to make even an informed guess about the true origin of the collection.

    The fables in the Romulus collection are in prose—often no more than prose adaptations of the verse fables of Phaedrus. There is, however, another collection of fables which is clearly based on the prose Romulus but is written in elegiac verse. It is often referred to as the Anonymus Neveleti, because it was published, without an author's name, by Nevelet in Frankfurt in 1610. Many scholars now accept its attribution (proposed by Hervieux) to Galterus Anglicus, who wrote about 1177. There are sixty fables in the collection, all of which can be found in the prose Romulus. The collection was very popular, and numerous translations and adaptations were made into the vernacular languages.

    Although there is no lack of such fable material which can be dated before the thirteenth century, it is highly probable that there was a great deal more which has since been lost. The story (Fable 85 in this collection) of the sick lion who was cured by being wrapped, on the advice of the fox, in the skin torn from a wolf, is to be found in the Greek Aesop but not in any of the early medieval Latin fable collections. Yet there is an adaptation of it in a poem by Paulus Diaconus in the early ninth century, and it appears at greater length in the Ecbasis captivi (Escape of a Certain Captive), probably written about 940, and in numerous beast epics of the twelfth century. Whether it appeared in a fable collection now lost or was transmitted orally can no longer be determined.

    The tradition of Aesop was also represented in the Middle Ages by the fables of Avianus, an author whose dates are very uncertain—conjectures vary between the second and the sixth centuries A.D. These fables were to a large degree different from those in the Romulus collection and they also were adapted into both prose and verse by such authors as Alexander Neckham, in his Novus Avianus, and the "Astensis poeta" (c. 1100).

    There was one other source of medieval fable material, which had no direct connection with Aesop, the Panchatantra. This consists of Indian fables which entered Persia in the sixth century, some of which were incorporated into the Kalila and Dimna, originally written in Persian, and translated into Arabic in the eighth century. The work was essentially a frame story into which various animal fables were fitted. The form remained constant in the numerous adaptations into other languages, of which the most important for western Europe was the Novus Aesopus of Baldo (c. 1190). This work, probably based on a Latin prose version of Kalila and Dimna, consisted of 1242 leonine hexameters and contained thirty-five fables. Twenty of these are the same as those found in another adaptation of Kalila and Dimna, the Directorium humanae vitae of John of Capua, but it is unlikely that there was any direct influence. Few of Baldo's fables have any direct counterparts in the Romulus collections or the Hebrew Fox Fables but it is possible that his work was known to Berechiah.

    We have named only a few of the extant fable collections of the Middle Ages. Since there were undoubtedly many more which have not survived, it is pointless to try to discover the precise source of each of the Hebrew fox tales. One possible connection, however, should be described in a little more detail: the fables of Marie de France. These are very close in time to the fables of Berechiah, since they were written in the latter part of the twelfth century, probably between 1170 and 1180. All scholars agree that Marie used a source written in English, but that it was not the fable collection of King Alfred mentioned in her prologue. There are in her work a large number of fables from the standard Romulus collections; a few demonstrably from Eastern sources; some from the beast epic Roman de Renart, which was rapidly becoming popular in the twelfth century; and a few about human beings, which may have derived from contemporary anecdotes or orally transmitted tales. There remain, however, a number of fables from sources completely unknown, and it is thus the more remarkable that many of these appear not only in Marie's collection but also in the Fox Fables of Berechiah. Of the thirteen such fables found in both authors, seven have precisely the same plot, and six show a basic resemblance. Another thirty-seven of the Hebrew Fox Fables are to be found both in Marie's work and in the standard Romulus collections, and it is clear from correspondences of detail that Berechiah was using the work of Marie rather than the Latin versions. This does not mean that the Latin collections were unknown to him. Fable 48 in Berechiah's work, for example, is found in Romulus but not in Marie's collection, and there are others in which the Romulus versions obviously have been used. Twenty-seven of Berechiah's fables seem to have been taken from those of Avianus, and others from the Kalila and Dimna. For twenty-seven of his fables, no source can be found.

    The uncertainties about the exact dates of both Marie de France and Berechiah preclude any final decision about which of them was the source for the other, but all the evidence we have indicates that Berechiah drew on the collection of Marie de France. It is very likely that she wrote her collection while he was still very young, or perhaps even before his birth. There is also internal evidence that he used her work. Fable 41 of Marie's collection tells of two serfs who did not wish to discuss something in their master's hearing. In several manuscripts the critical word was transcribed as cerfs [stags], and it was a manuscript containing this error that Berechiah used for his fable of the two deer (Fable 19). The story surely has more point when the speakers are serfs. We may therefore say that Berechiah almost certainly used the collection of Marie de France as his main source.

    He did not observe the order in which her fables are collected, however, and to the fables he derived from her work he added numerous others from the main sources of fables available to him, chiefly the Romulus and Avianus collections. The few fables he derived from Arabic sources are very probably taken from Latin adaptations of Kalila and Dimna. Although it is possible that he invented some or all of those stories for which no source is known, it is much more probable that they were based upon sources now lost or on Hebrew oral tradition.

    The Author

There is very little definite information about the life of Rabbi Berechiah ben Natronai ha-Nakdan. It is known, however, that he was French, born perhaps in Burgundy, and that he spent much time in Provence. There is also evidence that he was the same person as the Benedictus le Puncteur mentioned in an Oxford document of the late twelfth century, for Berechiah means "blessed" (benedictus) and ha-Nakdan means "the punctuator" (le puncteur). It must be admitted, however, that the term was frequently applied to Jewish scribes and grammarians; so the identification is not completely certain.

    There is considerable disagreement among scholars about the exact dates of Berechiah's life. The consensus is that he wrote his works at the end of the twelfth century, but some critics would place them rather in the first half of the thirteenth. The point is of some significance, since so many fable collections and beast epics were appearing at the time that a difference of even ten or twenty years could markedly affect the number of possible sources. Fortunately, there can be no chronological objection to assuming that he knew the work of Marie de France. And if he was in England, as the Oxford document may indicate, it would be even more likely that he had firsthand knowledge of the work of Marie de France, which was written there toward the end of the twelfth century. The Fox Fables (Mishle Shualim) are Berechiah's best-known work, but he produced several others, among them a lapidary, Koah ha-Abanim [the power of stones], and an imitation of the Natural Questions of Adelhard of Bath, Dodi we Nechdi [uncle and nephew].

    The Work

By no means all the "fox fables" of Berechiah are about the relation of the fox with other animals. The title can probably be explained by the contemporary popularity of the Roman de Renart—the involved account, appearing in many branches, of the struggle between the cunning and unscrupulous fox Renart and the greedy and stupid wolf Isengrim. Several of Berechiah's fables are in fact taken from some version of the Roman de Renart. We have mentioned that the sources of many of the Fox Fables are known, but this does not mean that Berechiah merely translated or adapted them. Not only are details frequently changed, but sometimes even the kinds of animals taking part are different, either because the author felt that those substituted were more suitable for his setting, or because there was no word for the animals in his source, in the Old Testament Hebrew which he used. The fables are in rhymed prose, with a large amount of Biblical references and quotation. Indeed, it may be said that some of the stories are centos of Old Testament quotation. The didactic element is stressed, as it always is in fables, and it may well be that here, as so often in the beast epic, there are numerous references to contemporary personages and events which we can no longer identify but which would have amused the relatively restricted audience for which the fables were intended. Berechiah's purpose was social and moral instruction, combined perhaps with gentle satire. The language he used was inevitably that of the Old Testament but there is no evidence in his work of any stress on religion.

    The Translation

The translation is based on the critical text of the original edited by A. M. Haberman, Mishle Shualim l'Rabbi Berekhyah ha-Naqdan (Jerusalem, Schocken Publishing House, Ltd., 1945-1946). No attempt has been made to reproduce the rhymed prose of the original, but the translator has taken great care to indicate the very numerous Old Testament reminiscences and quotations by incorporating the wording of the corresponding passages of the King James Version of the Bible. The result is a translation which not only reflects the style of the original but which also has a Biblical flavor highly appropriate to the gentle and at times ironic advice which the fables convey. Thus readers of the English translation can be aware of what is perhaps the most interesting feature of Berechiah's work —the change which Aesop's fables underwent when viewed in the mirror of medieval Hebrew culture.

    While this book was in press, the news came of the death of Moses Hadas. This is thus the last work of a man who contributed as much as anyone to the understanding and perpetuation of the humanistic tradition. It is perhaps fitting that this work, whose translation gave him great pleasure in the making, reflects that union of the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin traditions of which he himself was so fine a representative.

W. T. H. Jackson

Chapter One

Crow & Fox


A crow mounted a fig tree, carrying a cheese in his mouth. Under the tree stood a fox, devising and scheming how he might bring the cheese down to earth. He called to the crow: "Stately, handsome, and sweet bird, good and agreeable and lovely, happy is he who is paired with thee. If all the beauties were at thy side their comeliness would not equal thine. If thou shouldst essay to sing songs thou wouldst surpass all birds in music and wouldst be sole perfection, for no flaw is to be found in thee. See whether thy voice matches thy stature and the majesty of thy plumage, for thou art free of fault." The crow said to himself: "I shall let him hear my voice, and he shall heap praise upon praise." So he opened his mouth to raise his voice, whereupon the cheese immediately fell and landed near the head of the fox, who said: "Of the precious things of heaven above this hath come to me from him that raiseth his voice; no longer will I listen to the sound of song." So he went to his own place after he had obtained his desire of the crow.

    This parable is for the proud and haughty and for the flatterers and falsifiers who deceive them with their lies and honeyed words, and extract their wealth which they had secreted in vain and in utter futility. Beware, therefore, of the seducer, and be not swayed by the aspect of his figure and the loftiness of his stature; let him not trap thee with his eyeballs, with his false lips, with his violent hands.

    And I plied my poesy and said:

A friend hath fooled me; 't is easy to befool a fool;
Easier still it is when one makes himself a fool.

Chapter Two

Ass, Dog, Man


In the house of a municipal official there lived a small dog who ate of his bread and slept in his lap, walked with him and rode with him. In the house an ass lowered, for that the man was friends with the dog and often played with him like a pair of gossips. Said the ass to himself: "I am not inferior to the dog. I too shall approach the master; perhaps he will be friends with me, as with the dog. I will embrace and kiss him and lick him with my tongue, I will put my eyes to his, and my face over against his. And I will be his companion when his friends are by. All his clothing will I slobber and trample, every shred and shoe latchet. To win his favor I shall bray at him, just as the dog frisks and barks. And thus shall I prove whether I find favor even as the dog." When the master returned home the ass put his plan into execution. He ran quickly toward him and licked him about the ears and embraced him with his forelegs and raised his voice to him and applied his head to his, just as he had learned of the dog. But the master was stricken with fear, for the ass went up and down upon him, and hemmed him in with his mouth until he thrust him from his seat, and he clung to his neck like a necklace until his weight was heavy upon him. Cried the master: "Hither, all who are with me! Remove the ass from upon me, for his terror is grown great." All the folk assembled, one with a dagger and another with a stick; one pelted the ass with stones and another smote him with a rod; one cried: "Strike, but spare his life." So they chased the ass to his crib, bruised on back and belly.

    The parable is for a fickle man whose eyes are broad and whose heart is high; he is lordly in his haughtiness. For such as he there can be no success. In his desire to hold sway he suddenly stumbles and falls and is thrust from his station, and no man heeds his speech. Solomon's proverb remains valid [Proverbs 24.20]: "There shall be no reward to the evil."

    And I plied my poesy and said:

Before destruction comes crookedness of ways;

Sloth is a stumbling block on the path to honor.

Excerpted from Fables of a Jewish Aesop by . Copyright © 2001 by Estate of Moses Hadas. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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